St. Louis Mom Makes It Her Mission to Curb Distracted Driving

Every time a driver dials a cell phone or answers a text behind the wheel, that person is putting his or her life at risk.

Even worse, the driver is threatening the lives of others’ parents, spouses, friends, and children.

On November 23, 2007, those children were Kimberly Schlau’s.

That afternoon, the day after Thanksgiving, Jessica and Kelli Uhl were heading home after a visit with their father and stepmother. While on Highway 64, their car was hit by an Illinois State Highway Patrol cruiser traveling at 126 miles per hour – driven by a trooper who was using both his onboard computer and cell phone before impact. The trooper survived; Jessica and Kelli did not.

Schlau found a way to channel her intense pain into something positive. Through her work with the advocacy groups, PursuitSafety and FocusDriven, this incredible mom has changed how Illinois views distracted driving, potentially saving the lives of thousands. And on July 23, she will once again raise awareness about safe driving and honor her daughters through the Third Annual Jessica and Kelli Uhl Fundraiser.

A mother and an advocate

In the months following the crash, Schlau understandably was not ready to speak publicly about her daughters’ deaths. However, with a fundraiser in her daughters’ memories quickly approaching, Schlau agreed to give an interview to KSDK regarding distracted driving. From there, her story and her foray into advocacy snowballed.

“Candy Priano of PursuitSafety found my story and contacted me a few months later to do an interview for the organization’s newsletter,” said Schlau. “It was the first time that I found someone like me – someone whose child had been killed in a crash involving law enforcement.”

Schlau, inspired by the organization’s focus on safer vehicular police pursuits, began working closely with PursuitSafety as an activist and eventually as its Midwest Team Lead. Explained Schlau, “We are not anti-police or anti-pursuit; we just want safer driving standards to protect officers, first responders and civilians.”

Today, Schlau shares Jessica and Kelli’s story with cadet and career officers to reinforce the dangers of excessive speed and distracted driving, including regularly presenting at officer training classes in the metro area. Her work shines a light on the fact that within six weeks’ time, at least 30 bystanders and one officer are killed in police response calls and chases in the U.S.

In addition to PursuitSafety, Schlau reached out to the group FocusDriven after watching an Oprah episode on the dangers of using a cell phone while driving – a factor in one out of four crashes. Furthermore, according to FocusDriven, 5,474 Americans were killed in 2009 because of distracted driving. Schlau and FocusDriven are now working together to approach law enforcement and first responders on alternatives to cell phone use while on the road.

“I fully support the work of both organizations, and it has allowed me to find others who have lost children in senseless crashes, and to not only help them through this grief, but to try to make sure it doesn’t happen to other families.”

Schlau hasn’t just changed people’s minds about distracted driving, she’s also changed pursuit procedures across the state of Illinois. One year after Jessica and Kelli’s deaths, the Illinois State Police amended their response and pursuit procedures and implemented a hands-free cellular policy. Furthermore, currently in front of Governor Pat Quinn is the Uhl Law bill, which precludes someone from filing for workers’ compensation if he or she is convicted of forcible felony, reckless homicide or aggravated DUI.

Saving lives through an annual event

This Saturday, the lives of Schlau’s oldest daughters will be honored with a night of dancing, dinner and entertainment at the family’s Third Annual Fundraiser to benefit the Jessica and Kelli Uhl Memorial Fund. The event will be held from 7 p.m. to 12 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus Hall, One Columbus Drive in Collinsville. Tickets are $20 per person and can be ordered by contacting Schlau at [email protected].

Money raised from the event will help fund the Jessica Uhl Memorial Scholarship for business or marketing students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the Kelli Uhl Memorial Scholarship, which will be awarded to a graduate of the Collinsville High School Class of 2012 – Kelli’s graduating class.

In addition to celebrating her daughters, the event gives Schlau another platform to raise awareness about safer pursuits and to encourage others to put the cell phone down when they climb in the car.

“I still see people driving and texting, and I just pray for them and for the rest of us on the road. Laws are great to have on the books, but it’s enforcement and personal responsibility that make the difference.”

By Nicole Plegge, Lifestyle Blogger for SmartParenting

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Metro East mom Nicole Plegge is the lifestyle and pop culture blogger for STL Parent. Besides working as a freelance writer & public relations specialist, and raising two daughters and a husband, Nicole's greatest achievements are finding her misplaced car keys each day and managing to leave the house in a stain-free shirt. Her biggest regret is never being accepted to the Eastland School for Girls. Follow Nicole on Twitter @STLWriterinIL 

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